Newsletter 462

Published October 24, 2022
Fighting climate change with stupidity

Still on the road, I’m in Bangkok for the city’s third Biennale, which is proving – so far – to be an impressive event. I’ll save any further comments for a forthcoming column, and turn my attention to another matter, namely the incredibly stupid tactics of climate activists in art museums.

There have been a number of these incidents, but most recently we had two young women from the group Just Stop Oil, throwing tomato soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers in the National Gallery, London. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, two members of Extinction Rebellion thought it was a good idea to superglue themselves to Picasso’s Massacre in Korea, at the National Gallery of Victoria.

I expect I’m fairly typical in believing climate change is an issue of extreme importance that we are a very long way from addressing. I’m even on-side for consciousness-raising antics, civil disobedience and street theatre, if it helps spread the message. Where I part company with the activists is when they start targeting works of art. This is not clever, it’s not appropriate, and it reveals a brainless arrogance on behalf of the protesters.

When did Van Gogh or Picasso ever lend their support to the fossil fuel industry? Great works of art are part of the cultural heritage of the entire planet, not just the museum in which they are housed. They are rare and vulnerable, and need to be treated with care, not contempt. It’s idiotical for the Melbourne protesters to say they knew they wouldn’t damage the painting because they only glued themselves to the glass in front of the work. They damaged the painting by putting their unwanted presences between the work and the viewer. They sent a message to the Centre Pompidou, who lent the picture to the NGV, that Melbourne is not a safe place to send important works of art.

Even more outlandish was the statement by the Just Stop Oil spokesman, who told reporters: “We are not trying to make friends here, we are trying to make change, and unfortunately this is the way that change happens.”

“Unfortunately” this is the way to change friends into enemies. Change doesn’t magically happen when a group of sanctimonious nitwits decide to attack Vincent Van Gogh when they should be taking their protests to the oil companies and the politicians. As Van Gogh is a much easier target this ugly gesture should be seen as a simple act of cowardice rather than bravery.

Two points:

  1. The people that frequent art museums would believe wholeheartedy in the need to act on climate change. They do not need convincing or confronting. Galleries should not be co-opted as venues for political publicity stunts.
  2. It’s stupid to treat such paintings as valuable commodities, when the museums are never going to sell them. They are public property, not the playthings of rich capitalists.

Overall, it’s hard to imagine anything more counterproductive to a good cause, or more devoid of cultural sensitivity. It’s not that we need to protect the planet or a painting. We need to protect both, and it’s a strange kind of protection that decides to attack one valuable object in order to save the other. Rather than consciousness-raisers these groups have made themselves look like philistines and vandals, and there’s nothing heroic in either of those titles.

The column this week deals, inevitably, with Sculpture by the Sea, which has returned after a two year, COVID-19-induced hiatus. It’s not a review, as I had to write the piece in advance of the show being viewable, but more of an overview with a few hit picks. Whatever I might write about SXS, there’s no doubt it will draw huge crowds over the next couple of weeks.

The movie being discussed is Decision to Leave, a Hitchcockian murder mystery and doomed romance that earned Park Chang-wook the Best Director award at Cannes this year. South Korea, like every other country, makes its share of trashy films, but the good ones are very good indeed. If Australia had made as many quality features over the past few years, we’d be talking about a new Golden Age. Alas, the current era of Oz cinema is no better than tin.